BONAIRE - May, 2008

(Click here to see the pictures from this trip.)

When you’re going to a spot that’s well-known for macro photography, it’s sort of hard to complain about a trip that has ideal weather, good visibility, easy diving, and a frogfish at both the start and the end of the trip.

We made our annual pilgrimage to Bonaire May 17-24. Our group this year consisted of a mix of Bonaire veterans and newbies: Susan Tritt & Lionel Galway, and Maria Genovese on the newbie side, and Jim & Diana Cooper, Wil & Linda Lemley, and myself on the veteran’s portion.

And that’s one of the great allures of Bonaire: It’s worth coming back to again and again. There’s a both a predictability and a reliability to it and it’s sort of hard to have a bad dive. You’ll almost always find something interesting or unusual to see. It generally won’t be adrenaline-pumping experiences (though we did get buzzed by good-sized Barracuda and Tarpon during the week), but it’s a very pleasant experience whether you do it from the boat or the shore (or a combination of both, as we do).

We flew down this year on Delta (through Atlanta) which began service to Bonaire in February. We liked this schedule a lot. We left LA shortly after midnight, had a two-hour layover in Atlanta, left Atlanta at 10AM and arrived in Bonaire at 2PM. That put us (after Immigration & Customs) at Buddy Dive around 3:30, checked in to our rooms, and then went straight to the dive shop for our 4PM Marine Park orientation lecture.

On the back end, we left Bonaire at 3PM and although we can connect in Atlanta with an evening fight back to LA (arriving around 11PM), we choose to overnight in Atlanta so we could spend a day at the Georgia Aquarium. (We’ll have more on the Aquarium in a separate report.)

Once again, we encamped at Buddy Dive, which has sort of become our home on Bonaire. We like the place for a variety of reasons.

First is that it’s centrally located, pretty much in the middle of the island and that means that you have quick and easy access (by boat) to Klein Bonaire and whether you want to head north or south, it’s a relatively short drive (no more than 20 minutes in either direction).

We also like the service and support at Buddy’s. Granted, we’ve been going there a while so they know our groups and me well. But they seem to go out of their way to accommodate our needs so they’ve always got a boat for just our group, generally the same two or three guides all week long (Murph and Carlos pulled yeoman’s duty with us this time), they’ll do the Bonaire briefing for us separately, they’re good about giving us rooms in the buildings where we ask, and they make sure - since they know we dive as a group for the shore dives - to get us a van to use for the week as our regular vehicle.

(BTW - and this also underscores the value of traveling with a group, let alone a Reef Seekers group - you’ll find there’s strength in numbers and, if your group leader’s on top of things, you’ll get much better service than you’d be able to get if you go as an individual. This is not saying that this resort - or any other - treats individuals poorly. It’s just that it’s easier for them to schedule larger organized groups and deal with a single individual - the group leader - and that usually means a better trip for all parties concerned.)

Buddy’s has also undergone some infrastructure improvements since we were there last year and these only added to our overall enjoyment. They’ve replaced their entire vehicle fleet with brand new trucks and vans. Although the air-conditioning in our van wasn’t working, generally all the vehicles have AC.

They also replaced all the furniture in both the Bella Vista restaurant (where you have breakfast each day) as well as there’s new furniture in the pool restaurant area. Small touches but it makes it slightly more comfortable.

There are also some changes within the rooms. We had two one-bedroom apartments and one three-bedroom apartment. In the three-bedroom, there were new shower fixtures that gave out really good flow and made showering at the end of each day quite a refreshing experience (unlike some of the older showerheads that only gave you a trickle). The pillows on the bed seemed new and even the TV in the one-bedroom units seemed new. (They’ve got an array of free cable stations so you can watch pretty much anything you like.)

Best of all (being the Internet junkie that I am), the Wi-Fi system at Buddy now reaches all the rooms. On top of that, they’ve smartly redone their pricing structure. You can choose to pay for it piecemeal and buy two-hour blocks for $8 or you can choose their weeklong plan which gives you unlimited Internet access 24/7 for $40. Needless to say, we opted for the latter.

I’ve never had a bug problem in Bonaire (the constant tradewinds generally make it difficult for bugs to get around) but that wasn’t the case this time. It wasn’t severe but there were enough small bites to make it noticeable and occasionally scratchingly annoying. I have no idea what they are and will just chalk it up to No-See-Ums. But you might want to bring some Off or Deet or something like that.

The package we get from Buddy’s is the “Dive and Drive” package which includes your room, a vehicle (shared, one per room - we ended up with the aforementioned van and two 4-passenger pick-up trucks - and you pay for the gas), breakfast daily, 6 boat dives (you can upgrade - as we do - to the 11 boat-package for an extra $94), and unlimited tanks for shore diving. Diving is done on either air or nitrox (and the latter is now included at no extra charge).

Buddy’s generally offers three boat dives a day: two in the morning (sometimes two one-tank dives and sometimes a two-tank dive) and one in the afternoon. Because we had a boat to ourselves, we always did a two-tank dive (with the exception of our first day there) and generally scheduled those for the mornings. That left the afternoons free for shore diving, either from the dock at Buddy’s (the house reef is excellent - more on that later) or by driving to some of the many sites that are accessible from the shore.

Finding the sites couldn’t be easier. In addition to numerous books that are available, you’re given a map with all of them marked. And all you need to do is follow the main road and kept an eye out for a pair of yellow stones with the dive site name neatly printed on the stones. The stones mark the then entrance to the parking area for that site. Pull up (sometimes literally only a few feet from the water’s edge) and you’ll see a yellow mooring buoy just offshore. That’s your general starting point for the dive and the biggest decision you need to make is whether to go left or right.

Normally when you’re diving Bonaire, there’s always an admonition to “check for the current and head into it.” I’ve always thought of this as one of the biggest jokes since there IS no current in Bonaire. At least, there hasn’t been until this trip.

When we did our checkout dive on Buddy Reef (all divers in Bonaire must do their first dive as a shore dive loosely supervised by the resort staff where you’re staying), we kicked out and noticed a mild current running from left to right. So we turned left and started the dive into the current, turned around, and drifted back to our starting point (a line runs from the Buddy dock straight out across the sand and to the middle of the drop-off making it very easy to find your way back) and turned back to the dock. No big deal.

Since we didn’t have our boat dive this first day until the afternoon, we still had time for another morning shore dive before lunch. So we plopped back in and were amazed to not only find that the current had shifted 180º but that it had grown in intensity. In fact, it was almost impossible to kick against. It was a strong current by any standards. It was an ENORMOUS current by Bonaire standards. And amazingly, an hour later . . . it was gone. Even the locals were saying they hadn’t seen anything like that before.

We enjoyed pretty good conditions overall. We had a little bit of overcast the first day or two, but the air temps were generally around mid-80s during the day and mid-70s at night, with fairly low humidity. Very pleasant. Water temperature - depending on whose gauge you want to believe - was 79-81º. Some people were getting slightly chilled at the end of the second dive. I wore a Pinnacle Breaker 3mm and that was fine for me. Some people added a vest underneath what they were wearing &/or a light hood. My philosophy is that it’s always better to bring things you won’t need (I packed a lycra hood that I never used) than to wish you’d brought the thing you left lying at home.

We had generally good vis, too. Most of the time, it was around 80+ feet and there were some sites where the water was that magical shade of blue when it reaches over 100 feet. No complaints in that department.

We go to Bonaire to look for critters and by that standard, we had very good dives. As I mentioned earlier, I think it’s hard to have a bad dive in Bonaire. By the same token, I don’t think you’ll come off of a site raving that it was the most spectacular dive you’ve ever done. There is definitely a sameness from site to site, which is not unusual given that some of the sites are only 100 yards or so apart. But there are also some sites that have unique characteristics to them.

Two that pop into mind immediately are Small Wall and the Hilma Hooker. The former is a site with a small vertical wall in the middle of the site (hence the name). The latter is a wreck that’s been down since 1984 and whose prop I use as a prop for our “I-dove-Bonaire” photos. Other sites also have their own things going, like Rappel, where you have a fairly sharp drop-off and then a very interesting flat shallow coral garden making it almost like two different dives on one site.

We also dove sites that have been closed but which have recently reopened. The marine park authority will periodically close sites (for a couple of years) to allow the site to recover from diver damage. We started diving Knife a few years ago and this time we got to dive Keepsake, which has only been reopened since the first of the year.

One thing we noticed right away was that that the Elephant Ear Sponges (the big orange ones) were large and prolific and that the purple sea fans (which you find in the shallows) were also healthy and generally intact. So it would seem - just based on these two observations - that the site closure had served its purpose.

If you go to Bonaire, you also want to make sure that at any site you visit, you explore the shallower waters along the edge of the drop-off. These will generally be in the 25-40 foot range so it’s also a good place to do some off-gassing. But a lot of times these shallower areas are where you might find seahorses and frogfish.

And this is where a good guide is invaluable. Most of the guides know the general area where most of the “special friends” are. And most of the time, without a guide, you’re simply not going to find them. So it really pays to stick close to your guide. They’ll not only point things out but they’ll also make sure you don’t get too enthusiastic in your appreciation of what you’re seeing, especially if you have a camera and start plunging into the reef (or the critter) in your excitement to get a shot.

But this doesn’t mean you can’t get lucky on your own.

Supposedly a seahorse and three frogfish have taken up residence on Buddy Reef (which is a great dive in and of itself). We were given general directions to all of them. Now bear in mind that these things move around. It’s not like they live in one place and have a neon sign over them with a big flashing arrow going “Look here.” So you have to have some idea of type of habitat or terrain they’ll be occupying.

It took us three or four tries, but we finally located the seahorse (as did about a dozen other divers - I felt sorry for the poor little guy). But we simply couldn’t find any of the frogfish. Maybe they’d moved on or maybe we swam over them and simply didn’t see them. But as the saying goes, I’d rather be lucky than good.

As we were wrapping up our final dive of the trip, one of our divers put her hand down next to a coral . . . and something moved. Upon closer inspection, “something” turned out to be a small (2” or so) red/orange Frogfish that was NOT one of the ones on our list. And we had him all to ourselves. Most fascinating was watching him move from one patch of the reef to another. He “hopped” along and waddled on his fins and then fund two blades of Fire Coral between which he wedged himself. While he was waddling, he kept flicking his lure out and was opening his mouth, perhaps in hopes of catching a last afternoon meal. Nice way to end the trip, regardless.

In general, Bonaire seemed “fishier” than it has in the past. This was especially true for Buddy Reef. There just seemed to be more fish overall, and specifically more Parrotfish & more Trumpetfish, than I recall seeing in the past. The Parrots were also a lot less skittish and seemed to allow for many more close approaches (and photos) than previously. And the Trumpets were frequently seen two or three to a group, noses down, trying their best to look like s soft coral, and keeping their eyes open at all times for an unsuspecting meal. And we also saw a number of times where the Trumpetfish literally lay on top of the back spine of the Parrotfish to use the Parrot as camouflage and try to snag a snack.

There was an awful lot of feeding and cleaning that we observed, especially on dives made after 5PM but before sundown (around 6:45PM). This was especially true - again - on Buddy Reef. It seemed like every late afternoon dive we did there was a whole lot of feeding going on and a while lot of cleaning going on. And the latter made it possible to closely-approach some animals that are more skittish when they’re not being cleaned.

There was plenty of stuff to see. In addition to the Trumpets and Parrots, there were lot of Angels (French, Queen, and Rock Beauty), plenty of Damselfish, Blennies, and Wrasses. On many of the reefs we visited, we’d run into hundreds of Blue Tangs, all together in a gang, roaming around the reef and occasionally diving in to nibble on whatever, and then moving on en masse to another spot.

And then there were the seahorses. We must have seen a dozen or more. After a while it was, “Oh yeah, the guide found another seahorse. Isn’t that nice?” (It’s easy to get spoiled.) But again it underscores the value of the guide. There are some animals like the Spotted Drums (adult intermediate, and juvy - three different looks) that you can probably find on your own. But there are others that you’ll need a little help with.

So generally our days at Buddy’s were two dives in the morning, lunch, one or two afternoon dives and then either a dusk dive or a night dive. Breakfast is included in the package but lunch and dinner are not, so we were on our own for those.

One nice thing about Buddy’s is that each apartment has a kitchen complete with refrigerator, microwave, dishes, and utensils. So a lot of times we’d eat lunch in the rooms. Sometimes that would be leftovers from the previous night’s dinner, and sometimes we’d go to get something. We always make a run to the supermarket (Cultimara) right after we arrive and this time I decided to forego my traditional daily Subway, and instead got some sandwich meat from the Cultimara deli and had that along with some chips and soda. Cheaper, quicker, and didn’t have to wait in a long line.

We ate dinner out every night. Probably our favorite is Cactus Blue, not only because it’s owned by Corinna Wegere (her husband Hagen is the chef), who we knew when she was the dive shop manager at Buddy’s, but just because it’s really good. I had the Jambalaya Pasta one night that was quite yummy. (And it didn’t hurt that it was my birthday and they brought out a birthday cake dessert.)

We also like Capriccio a lot. It’s a bit more upscale, Italian in nature, but also very good. It’s located a couple of doors down from City Café where we’ve had some good meals in the past, but not this time. City Café was mediocre at best.

But our delightful “new” find this time was Pasa Bon Pizza which claims to have the best pizza in Bonaire. We think they’re being waaaaay too modest. The pizza was excellent and can hold itself against the best pies in New York. The lasagna was fantastic as well.

One place we tried to go eat but couldn’t was the Rose Inn in Rincon. We planned to dive ‘Ol Blue and when you do that, because that part of the road becomes one-way, you’re forced to go in to Rincon. So we’d heard that Rose Inn was a great local place, serving authentic Bonairean food.

Unfortunately, they didn’t tell us that they stopped serving dinner a year or so ago and only do lunch now. But we got there and Rose was very nice, gave us a beer for our troubles, apologized that she wasn’t open, and invited us to come back again another time for lunch.

And that - along with good diving - is reason enough to go back to Bonaire. We’ll be planning another trip for 2009. Don’t know yet what time of year but May or June always seem to work well for us. And if you’re interested in joining us on the adventure, you should send us an e-mail or give us a call and get yourself signed up.

Bonaire bills itself as “A Diver’s Paradise.” We can tell you from all the trips we done there, that it’s a claim that they can easily live up to.


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